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ArlingtonRanked-choice voting won't be limitless in primary

Ranked-choice voting won’t be limitless in primary

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The field may be as many as a half-dozen by the time the dust settles, but for voters in June’s Arlington County Board Democratic primary, there will be some limits on how many candidates one can rank as part of the new instant-runoff process.

Technical constraints mean that voters will only be able to select their top three choices, no matter how many candidates emerge, county elections chief Gretchen Reinemeyer confirmed to the Sun Gazette.

That was the expectation several months ago, when County Board members first mulled using the instant-runoff system for the primary.

“All systems certified for use in Virginia have an uppermost limit,” Reinemeyer said. “There are only so many choices that can fit on a machine-readable ballot. Eventually you run out of space, or the font is so small that the ballot is no longer accessible.”


Most jurisdictions across the globe that use ranked-choice voting impose some form of limit on how many choices voters can make. An exception is in Australia: If there happened to be 50 candidates in a single political race Down Under, voters would have the chance to rank them from 1 to 50, if they so chose.

The General Assembly several years ago had given boards of supervisors and city councils the power to switch from the traditional winner-take-all format for primary and/or general elections for each community’s governing body. Arlington County Board members opted to only make the change for the primary, waiting to see how the process plays out before deciding whether to implement it for the County Board general election in November.

(“Plays out” in the sense of how it performs from the standpoint of election tabulation and voter experience. Those of a Machiavellian bent might suggest that the all-Democratic board might want to first see how the general-election field shakes out before deciding after the primary whether to go with ranked-choice or stick with winner-take-all for the two seats on the November ballot.)

As of mid-January, five Democrats had signaled their intentions to run for the seats being vacated by incumbents Christian Dorsey and Katie Cristol, but only three – J.D. Spain Sr., Jonathan Dromgoole and Maureen Coffey – have formally kicked off their campaigns in front of the Arlington County Democratic Committee.

At least two more (Natalie Roy and Tony Weaver) are in the pipeline and are likely to announce bids at the Democrats’ Feb. 1 meeting. Others could decide to make runs before the filing deadline arrives.

Arlington Democrats have used the ranked-choice method in the past when holding nominating caucuses for School Board or some special elections, but until now have been unable to use the method during state-run primaries.

Should Republicans end up with a field of candidates for County Board (unlikely) and opt to use the June primary (also unlikely), they too would be required to run it as a ranked-choice process based on the County Board’s fiat. Legislation now pending at the General Assembly would give political parties across the state, not local governing bodies, final say on which method was used for primaries and general elections.

Virginia Republicans also seem to be embracing the ranked-choice concept; the party used it to select its statewide ticket in 2021, and also has used it at nominating caucuses for a number of congressional districts.
While localities now have the option to run board of supervisors/city council races under the ranked-choice voting, state law still requires all other elections be conducted as winner-take-all contests, although that could potentially change in coming years.

The coming County Board election will mark the first time in eight years that two seats were up for grabs without an incumbent seeking re-election.
In the 2015 County Board primary, after incumbents Walter Tejada and Mary Hynes declined to seek new terms, Cristol and Dorsey led a field of six to win the Democratic nomination, then went on to defeat Republican-backed independent Michael McMenamin in the general election.

In 2019, the duo faced no intra-party challenges and cruised to victory in the general election over Audrey Clement and Arron O’Dell.

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